The Stevenson Creek drainage below the hairpin turn on Highway 168 by Shaver Lake shows the ravages of last year’s climate change–fueled Creek Fire. The blaze devastated the Fresno region’s San Joaquin River watershed and burned hundreds of area homes. Photo by Joey Hall

Fresno City Council Ignores Climate Plan

California’s fifth most populous city is sinking fast beneath the weight of developer control of every City Council seat on the downtown dais. Bereft of leadership on climate change, air pollution and a just transition to a sustainable society, all seven members recently took the most important vote of their careers—if not lives—but none said a word.

It happened on Sept. 30. With City Hall shrouded in smoke from the ancient redwoods burning in the nearby Sierra Nevada, flakes of dangerous ash raining down through the deadly fog, the silent septet unanimously approved the city’s grossly deficient Greenhouse Gas Reduction Plan Update. No debate was held, no policy challenged.

With the update conveniently buried beneath an equally disastrous update to the General Plan’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR), the rudderless crew of the good ship Fresno blithely ignored the climate crisis’s dark shape as it passed beneath their collective noses. They were too busy prioritizing developers’ more pressing demands to severely curtail environmental and public health reviews of proposed warehouses, factories and suburban sprawl.

From ranter Garry Bredefeld and Assemi Mini-Me Michael Karbassi on the north end to south Fresno’s industrial development lackeys Miguel Arias and Luis Chavez, to the city center’s confused trio of outgoing Esmeralda Soria, soporific Nelson Esparza and Chevron-backed Tyler Maxwell, all seven voted in lockstep to satisfy developer desires, while missing the chance of a lifetime to act on climate.

When a city elects inexperienced people to lead, as Fresno has, big mistakes happen. If they’re also unethical, again see Fresno, an unsuspecting public pays. And if their main goal in life is to climb the ladder to higher office with one eye always on the next rung, they will lie to you. It’s what politicians are infamous for.

It’s also why we’re in such a deep hole. The current crop of officeholders and lobbyists is no different than previous permutations and even includes second-generation members on both sides of the campaign ledger, an account that excludes climate change from meaningful consideration.

None of these City Council members has a history of community activism or organizing. This lack of experience in direct action and policy development fatally weakens the entire body. Too often the void is filled with a dangerous combination of ignorance and confidence.

As Esparza explained to me some years ago (“Why I Said No to Nelson Esparza,” Valleyclimate.org), he believes he’s smart enough to make the right decision on any issue after listening to all sides. This new twist on the good ol’ boys approach to “common sense” government is just as damaging as its predecessor.

So half a million Fresnans sit vulnerable, their future in peril. Three years since the UN Special Report on the disastrous impacts of a global warming increase of 1.5°C, two summers in a row of wildfire smoke-choked air due to climate change, and their city council won’t act on the crisis.

An actual greenhouse gas reduction plan came before the body for consideration and they didn’t even look at it. Few elected people have such an opportunity to make a difference, to lead during the most critical time in human history. Just weeks earlier, the United Nations issued an unprecedented “red alert” for humanity, calling for a complete political, economic and cultural transformation. That’s no small task.

Perhaps it’s just as well they stayed out of it, based on the other half of their two-part vote: A dangerous reclassification of the General Plan’s EIR, it’s yet another legally indefensible attempt to circumvent the California Environmental Quality Act. These people tend to do more harm than good.

Soria, Chavez and Bredefeld failed to learn their lesson after a similarly pointless 7-0 vote three years back for CEQA-free approval of Caglia Enterprises’s proposed 2.1 million square feet of warehouses, as reported in the April 2018 Community Alliance.

That effort failed badly, but this one threatens to create a new path for Caglia and many other polluters. State Center Community College Trustee Nasreen Johnson, Fresno’s own Kyrsten Sinema, now lobbies community members and organizations as an employee of fellow trustee Richard Caglia.

The city is attempting to categorize its General Plan EIR as “programmatic” to fast-track all future development by removing important environmental and public health reviews. Developers of every type are salivating at the prospect. It would formalize the city’s current terrible practice of making “negative declarations” after cursory safety reviews and no consideration of cumulative impacts.

Which is where the dangerously ignorant decided to weigh in. Arias went first, arguing that because District 3 infrastructure needs are so neglected they need industrial development impact fees to rebuild neighborhoods; it’s a Vietnam era “in order to save the village, we had to destroy it” military mentality.

Always the gaslighter, Arias also pontifically added a set of state recommendations on warehouse placement to the motion, none of which are the least bit enforceable, and tried to greenwash the effort by wildly claiming Fresno had staked out some noble high ground on air pollution. Chavez seconded this greenwashing effort with the ludicrous claim that the Council always conducts its “due diligence” when approving such projects.

While votes on financial and social issues split every which way between these six Democrats and a Republican, not so for land use. They easily find their way to unanimity in support of continued service to developers, their primary constituency. Such was the case with this 7-0 vote and the complete silence from every Council member. The fix was in on the General Plan vote while they determinedly avoided their greatest responsibility: the climate crisis.

Most of the ever-changing Council demonstrated its loyalty to developers in January 2019 with their unanimous support for a developer refund proposal. Their continued service will next be tested in another EIR vote, this time to clear the way for unchecked industrial development across eight square miles of south Fresno.

*****

  • Kevin Hall hosts Climate Politics on KFCF 88.1 FM every second and fourth Friday, 5 p.m.–6 p.m. He tweets as @airfrezno and @sjvalleyclimate and coordinates an informal network of climate activists at www.valleyclimate.org. Contact him at sjvalleyclimate@gmail.com for presentations and information.

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